Entrepreneur of the Year 2017: Emerging Technology

The annual Ernst & Young list of B.C.'s brightest business visionaries finds a fresh crop of leaders building empires in everything from renewable energy to venture capital to social enterprise

Aamir Baig + Fraser Hall + Andy Prochazka + Sam Prochazka
Co-founder/Director/CEO + Co-Founder/Director + Co-Founder + Co-Founder/Director
Article.com (Winner)

 ‘‘You wouldn’t think that four engineers would be that passionate about furniture, but we think we can really make a difference to people,” says Fraser Hall, who launched Article, a Vancouver-based online home furnishings retailer, in 2013 with fellow software designers Aamir Baig and twin brothers Sam and Andy Prochazka. The company’s goal is to sell high-quality furniture more efficiently and less expensively than traditional retailers.

Originally from Kelowna, Hall met Baig when the latter invested in the former’s Vancouver smartwear company, Recon Instruments, purchased in 2015 by Intel Corp. Baig and the Prochazkas, all originally from  Edmonton, had studied computer engineering together at the University of Alberta.

The idea for Article was sparked by Andy Prochazka’s six-month visit to Beijing in 2005-06. There to learn Mandarin, he also checked out trade shows, where he was amazed by how cheaply high-quality products could be built in China. The markup between manufacturing costs and retail prices was most extreme for designer furniture, doubling or even quadrupling at each step of the supply chain.  

“We thought, ‘This is incredibly inefficient,'” Hall remembers. “If we could group orders, we could remove all of those steps in between.” They initially cut costs by shipping items in batches instead of as individual orders, a strategy they call “fill the container.” The company has since boosted efficiency by building software to automate key business processes, from managing orders and stock to distribution and customer feedback.

An internal team plus the occasional outsider design the items (furniture, rugs, lighting and accessories), all exclusive to Article. Materials are sourced worldwide, and assembly takes place at various overseas facilities, mostly in Southeast Asia. The company now has more than 85 employees and has shipped some 50,000 orders to customers across the U.S. and Canada from its warehouses in Vancouver, Los Angeles, Seattle and Elizabeth, New Jersey. “We’re driven to create remarkably better furniture experiences,” Hall says, “and we’re willing to sustain, if we had to, short-term losses in order to create a long-term, lasting brand right here in Vancouver.”

Brian Paes-Braga
CEO, Lithium X Energy Corp. (Runner-up)

Raised in North Vancouver, Brian Paes-Braga was working in the financial sector when a prospector, the father of a school friend, told him about a lithium mine in Nevada. After researching lithium’s uses, including batteries for electric vehicles, Paes-Braga pitched purchasing the mine to Vancouver resource and film financier Frank Giustra, who, as a Tesla owner, saw lithium’s potential and brought local mining entrepreneur Paul Matysek on board.

Launched in 2015, Vancouver-based Lithium X bought more than 6,086 hectares in Nevada’s lithium-rich Clayton Valley, then shifted its focus to the so-called Lithium Triangle in South America, acquiring more than 8,156 hectares in Sal de los Angeles in Argentina. The company ended up selling its Nevada claims for 19.9 per cent of Vancouver-based lithium miner Pure Energy Minerals Ltd. and has proceeded full steam ahead on its asset in Argentina. In early 2017, Lithium X received approval to build its first ponding facility, designed to produce 2,500 tonnes of lithium carbonate equivalent a year with a potential value of more than US$25 million.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you?
I love to sleep on planes!

Kevin Pederson + Mitch Evanecz + Matt Leslie
Director of Operations + Co-Founder + Co-Founder 
West Coast Canning (Runner-up)

Kevin Pederson’s first company, Prince George-based Repac Products Inc., sells plastic six- and eight-pack rings for beer cans, but craft brewers wouldn’t buy them because few could afford their own canning equipment. When Pederson came across a couple of U.S. companies that brought the canning operation to brewers, he convinced fellow UNBC alum Matt Leslie to launch West Coast Canning, Canada’s first mobile canning service, in 2014.

“It was really just spotting the opportunity,” Pederson says. “We wrote a very thorough business plan and then finally had to make the decision: Are we going to do this or not? And if we don’t, someone probably will.”

Mitch Evanecz, their first employee, became a co-owner early last year. Headquartered in Vancouver, WCC merged with Toronto-based Sessions Craft Canning in October 2016 and plans to expand across the country and broaden its scope to include beverages beyond beer and cider.

Name an item you typically forget to pack on business trips and regret not bringing
Business cards. I absolutely hate the idea of having to exchange business cards with every person we meet; it just seems so old school. Yet everyone has them and wants to do the business card swap –Matt Leslie